Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"But Master, Why Must I Feed the Children Maggots?" A Narrative Game Review


Game Review: My Life with Master by Paul Czege


In his introduction to his collection of essays The Film, Andrew Sarris writes that "Vachel Lindsay's major contribution to film aesthetics consisted of distinguishing the artistic ends best suited to the differing expressive means of the stage play and the photoplay." It may seem odd to begin a game review with a quote from a collection of film criticism, but it isn't when the game being reviewed is My Life with Master by Paul Czege.

Paul is an active participant in a particular indie gaming subculture, who once gathered at The Forge, that has been aggressively pursuing the meaning of roleplaying games as a form of play. This group of game theorists and designers often stress the value of roleplaying game as art -- in particular, they usually discuss roleplaying games in the framework of narrative art form. A source of inspiration, though certainly not the source of inspiration, for participants in The Forge movement is Greg Costikyan's game theory manifesto "I Have No Words and I Must Design."

In the essay, Costikyan writes that "A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal." While we might debate the merits of this definition of game noun by noun, it is important to note that Costikyan is emphasizing games as a form of art. For many in the community that made up The Forge, role playing games would best be described as a form of narrative art.

It is all well and good for a critic, or theorist, to talk of a particular entertainment medium as art -- not artifice which by definition includes all man made things, but art -- it is quite another to apply such criticism/theory to the medium in question. Yet that is exactly what the community at The Forge did on a frequent basis. Quite a large number of excellent, well thought out, and interesting games have grown out of The Forge's fertile intellectual soil. My Life with Master is one of those games. Make no mistake, this "review" will not be a discussion as to whether or not My Life with Master is a good game, rather it will be a discussion of the reasons why it is a great game.

THEME

My Life with Master is a game in which the players create a narrative simulating romantic/gothic horror like that of Dracula or Frankenstein. The "players" play the role of minions of a twisted master. They are the Igors and Renfields to the "game master's" Victor Frankenstein or Dracula. Or as the author Paul Czege describes the theme, My Life with Master is "a roleplaying game about the horrific and dysfunctional ties that bind a monstrous Master and his or her minions."

Throughout the play of the game, the game master -- in the role of the "Master" -- will give various commands to his/her minions in an attempt to achieve some horrific goal. One examples from literature/film might be the use of Igor to dig up bodies so that the Master can fulfill his goal of reanimating a corpse. The minions may succeed, or fail, with carrying out an given command, but one thing is certain. Eventually, the Master will fall at the hands of one of his/her minions as the minions finally resolve an internal conflict between self-loathing and empathy/love. It is only a matter of time, the broad outcome of the game is known, play is about the how and the why.

It should be noted that Paul Czege begins his game with a warning message discussing the game's non-traditional play style and the creepy subject matter the game covers. I don't know that the warning is "necessary," as one can imagine children playing a Warner Bros. cartoon or Black and White Universal Monsters version of the game. Not every group has Nicolas Logue* as a Game Master or Player. But the warning does help set the proper tone for game play. It hints that those playing the game will have to ask themselves, "how far are you willing to go in describing the horrors of the Master and the horrific actions of the minions?" A question that can lead down some pretty creepy roads, even if Nicolas Logue isn't in your playing group. You will learn a lot about your friends when you listen to "how" they describe the acts they are asked to perpetrate.

One of the great successes of My Life with Master as a game is that its theme and its mechanics are perfectly integrated.

Mechanics

The mechanics of My Life with Master are simple, deceptively simple. At their most basic, the player and the game master roll handfuls of dice, add the totals, with the highest total winning the contest. Winning a contest also allows the winner to describe the victory as they wish, within the limits of the possibilities of the scene and the overarching narrative. This is a "reductive" version of the system, I want you to buy the game to get the full version of the system. But let me make it clear that the factors which influence the success or failure of any given action are directly related to the theme of the game. How fear-inspiring a Master is -- as well as how superstitious a community is -- is contrasted to the level of reason in a community. A perfect tension for simulating a romantic/gothic setting. So too is the amount a minion is loved/can love balanced against the amount a minion experiences self-loathing or how weary a minion is from all the horrific acts he/she has perpetrated. These are the forces that matter in the game, not "how high a minion's dexterity score is."

Most of the decisions which shape the environment of play are crafted as a shared experience by all who are playing. Together, the players and game master create the town. Together, everyone designs the master. And together, the everyone tells stories. Several stories, where each minion is the protagonist and where the Master is universally the antagonist. One of the key innovations of My Life with Master is the way it emphasizes the protagonistic nature of all the player's characters.

GAMEPLAY

There are not many role playing games that I would recommend as a game you use to introduce players to the hobby. Many are too complicated and intimidating for the inexperienced. My Life with Master is one of those few that are perfect for this role. But take note that I wrote "to use to introduce players" and not "introductory game." An introductory game should be both easy mechanically and narratively. 4th Edition D&D meets these requirements, as does Savage Worlds. Both can be narratively complex, but needn't be. They can be played as "kick in the door, kill the monster" games and still be rewarding experiences.

My Life with Master is a completely different beast. It is great for introducing others to the hobby because it protagonizes all the player, the mechanics are simple, and it emphasizes social interaction with other players. The game plays on all of the strengths of the gaming hobby. It does however require a commitment to the creation of narrative. If the players are not committed to telling a good story, the game is not fun. It requires creative investment. Additionally, the new gamer might need "coaxing" to tell their story with some fun detail. As a game master, one becomes a major facilitator in ways other games don't require. The My Life with Master game master is put into the position of drawing stories out of the players, rather than the typical watching players react to your scripted adventure style of play that many rpgs are rooted to. This can be a challenge and requires experience and/or commitment from the game master and players. The game play of My Life with Master is the creation of story during game play, not after game play. Very few games attempt/achieve this goal, but this game does a masterful job. By having the basis of the mechanics in the thematic elements of the milieu, rather than in physical/mental attributes, the game play focuses on describing outcomes thematically rather than mechanically. "I attack for 6 points of damage" is a sentence that makes no sense, thankfully, in the mechanical structure of My Life with Master.

CONCLUSION

This game is one which really tries to meet Costikyan's definition of game -- meaning that it attempts, and I think succeeds, to create art. Though one could argue that some group's play is more art that another group. It also provides a major contribution to our understanding of the artistic ends of role playing games. Czege's proposed contribution, as demonstrated by this game and not including any outside material, is that role playing games ought to create meaningful protagonized narratives.

It can certainly be said that his game, designed with that goal in mind, demonstrates that a game dedicated to creating meaningful narratives makes for a good role playing game.

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*Nicolas Logue is one of my personal favorite role playing game writers, but his material often "waxes Texas Chainsaw Massacre-esque." It is a running joke in my gaming group that when the players are reacting to a particularly horrific narrative description, they say in unison, "we get it...blah, blah, blah, Nicolas Logue...blah, blah, blah." We now use a "Logue Rating" for evaluating horror movies.
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